As we enter into our summer lectionary readings we begin with a topic that might make some of you uncomfortable. It’s all about praise!
I can hear you thinking: Oh now, pastor, can we have just a little more time with all that judgment stuff, please? Obviously, that makes us uncomfortable, too, but at least when you talk about judgment we aren’t worried that you’re going to force us to do something we don’t want to do!
Praise is a scary word. It’s scary, because it brings to mind other scary things like dancing and singing. We don’t dance much in public anymore, you might have noticed. It wasn’t that long ago that school dances involved dancing. It also wasn’t that long ago that communal singing was a thing that happened all the time. Nowadays, it’s pretty much reserved for church and the occasional odd sporting event, which is really cool when it happens, by the way. I will always remember the late-September 2008 Twins series sweep of the White Sox when the Metrodome corridors were packed with fans shouting Glory, Glory, Hallelujah. We know how to praise. We mostly just don’t want to.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. In many places in the world today, dancing, and singing, and communal praise are essential to worship. In 2006, I went on a trip to Tanzania with the Augustana Choir. One Sunday after worship in a village outside of Iringa, a half dozen local choirs joined us on the back lawn of the church to sing for one another. But it wasn’t just singing—it was dancing and jumping. It was praising. Every one of those groups came dressed for the occasion and ready to move it, clad in long-flowing robes or traditional Masai black-and-red laden with jewelry. They knew who they were, and they were there to do praise.
Our music was meaningful but different. This Lutheran tradition of stoicism is a heritage of ours that has some real strengths. We tend to be humble; we tend to value meekness; and we tend to do what we do well. But, man, do we struggle with praise! So, we say “Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord; praise the name of the Lord” from Psalm 113, but we say it meekly. We say it uniformly. We don’t want to stick out. And if the pastor (or anybody else) tries to get us to do differently, watch out!
So much of this comes from a good place—really, it does! We see the people who make a show of their praise—who raise up their hands not out of genuine worship but to demonstrate their faithfulness to others, or to fit in themselves. We see the auditoriums and the stadiums full of worshipers who are mimicking the actions of others, and we find that at best inauthentic and at worst showy or boastful. But just because we see the hypocrisy of others doesn’t mean we have our house in order.
In the book of Revelation there’s a scene of the final worship around the throne where all the throngs of people are gathered together to praise with dancing and shouting and singing. This is not just a thing God expects; it is our destiny to be people of praise. This seems like a thing that shouldn’t have to be said, but praise is not a bad thing!
The problem is that these signs of praise, whether clapping, or dancing, or shouting out, have become antithetical to our identity, so when we are told to do praise, it feels a little like a hostage situation. If I told you right now, “Stand up and start dancing!” I don’t think you’d do it out of the joy of the Lord. If you did it at all, it would be to get it over with so I stopped asking you to do uncomfortable things.
It seems to me that our praise should start by giving thanks to God in the way that is most authentic to us. I mean, at some churches, smiling is seen as a little too joyful. In these places, worship is such a solemn duty that anything resembling praise is shown the door. I don’t think we’re quite that way, either. The question is what does it look like to let go of our stoicism just enough to embrace the freedom of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I have a practical example that you’ve all experienced. Natalie loves to dance and sing. Shocker, I know. If music comes on, she can’t help but move to it. When she’s doing that at home, there are no rules. Well, there are rules, but they’re mostly just: Don’t break things. But when she’s at church, we have this conversation with her just about every week. You want to dance? Great! But you don’t bow, and you don’t look out at the congregation for approval, because when you dance at church, you dance for God—not for other people’s approval and certainly not to boast in how you good you are.
That’s really the criteria I think we should use generally for our praise. Who are we doing it for—for God or for ourselves? It’s basically the same criteria for eulogies at funerals. You can tell in the first fifteen seconds whether a person is telling a story about the person who died, which is good, or if they are using the person who died to tell a story about themselves. Praise is like that, because it isn’t about you.
That means you don’t have to praise in the way that others expect of you. Nobody gets to make praise into a law you have to do, much less that you have to do it in a certain way. Praise is authentic and personal; it doesn’t require you to live up to anybody else’s expectations. At the same time, praise is a natural response to Gospel. There is no wrong way to do it when it is meaningful to you, and you don’t have to do anything, but should you do it?
There are countless examples of praise in scripture, but maybe none are as poignant as King David, dancing his way through the whole city of Jerusalem before the Ark of the Covenant. If a king can do it with all the pretension of royalty, then who are we?
At the end of the day, authentic praise is a humble activity. It’s not about us. It shouldn’t be done to make me (or anybody else) happy. It should happen because of what God has done for us. It’s about showing our gratitude to God. Sure, it’s hard to tease out everybody’s motivations. Many people may be like those who Jesus lambasts for doing wild, showy prayers on street corners, but that doesn’t mean we’re excused from it. Just because other people are hypocrites doesn’t mean we are exempt from examining ourselves as well.
Praise is part of what it means to be Christians. It is essential to worship. It is—even—particularly Lutheran. So, here we are. Praise! Praise the Lord! And if you want to dance, dance. And if you want to sing, sing. And if you want to scowl in the corner, scowl in the corner. But do it for God. Do it all for God. Let the grace of God, free you to be you. And, at the end of the day, let it be a reminder that the only one worthy of worship is God, and that is a reason to give praise.